Re-enact a part of history and get to taste part of it, too!
I spent four years in Boston as an undergrad and did my fair share of stomping around the Freedom Trail and other historic sites in the area. There are still a few I need to check off - Lexington and Concord are a little challenging to get to when you don't have a car! - but here I was thinking I'd done just about everything there was to do in Boston.
And then I found out about the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, and everything changed. Apparently, a couple cool, new things have been happening in Boston since graduation, and this is definitely one of them. Read on to discover one of the coolest new attractions in the northeast!
So, as it turns out, this experience isn't exactly brand, brand new. My mom revealed that she had a braggy friend as a child who liked to rub it in her face that she got to go see the Boston Tea Party ships and throw tea into the harbor, just like the colonists did on December 16, 1773. Apparently since then, she's wanted to do the same thing, and on our most recent trip to Boston, we made that dream come true.
Back in the 70's, the ships were just that - ships. For clarification, these have always been museum ships. The real ones have been sent off to the ship graveyard a long, long time ago. Things have definitely expanded since then. Over the last three or so years, the ships have been refurbished and restored after a fire, and a museum has been installed, along with something I was very excited to hear about: a tea room
Kind of ironic for a museum that's talking about the destruction and boycott of tea, but hey, I'm all about the food.
The museum and ships are located on the harbor near South Station and the Children's Museum. It's a short walk from the train station, which was good because it was incredibly, incredibly cold the weekend we were there. Unlike other museums, this is a multimedia, hands on, play acting adventure. I wasn't totally sure what to expect when we first showed up, but went in with a lot of enthusiasm.
You don't get to explore on your own. When you purchase your tickets, you sign up for a time slot and meet one of the interpreters outside the museum to start your tour. We were greeted by two actors - one portraying Samuel Adams - and given a feather with "Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773" written on it. Colonists who participated in the Tea Party disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians, and the feathers are supposed to be our disguises. We were led into a room with a bunch of benches, each with the name of a Massachusetts patriot on the side. My mom, Felicity and I were originally sitting on the John Adams bench completely by accident, but she made us move when more people came in so a party could sit together. Rude, Mom!
Everyone was given a card with a historical person listed on it. There was a little info about each character, and a few of us got to get up and speak during the rally Sam Adams was hosting. My mom and I were both asked if we wanted to have lines, and we said yes! We originally thought a bunch of people would get to participate, but it wound up only being a couple people, maybe three or four.
Also, originally, it didn't look like there were too many people coming along, but the room quickly filled up, and there was an impressive amount of people on the tour! This made things a little cramped at times, but it was nice to see there was a good turn out even on a really cold day.
Once we were all settled, Sam Adams came back and began the meeting of the Sons of Liberty. This was a really cool experience - we'd been briefed before he came in about the general political climate in Boston in 1773 by Dorothy Quincy, who also explained how we could express our happiness or disgust for anything Adams said when he came back - and we got to participate with enthusiasm in the discussion. It didn't quite feel like you were a part of history, but it's a really good way to get people excited and involved in learning about the past. I definitely feel like you'd come away feeling like you'd really learned why the colonists were upset with the British imposing more and more taxes on them, and would remember it after you'd left.
Next, we were told to put on our disguises - most people tucked their feathers in their hats or behind their ears - got to go out onto the ships. There was another interpreter there to assist us in the next part of our adventure. Now, some of the magic of this moment was a little lost on me because there were so many people on board ship with us, and it wasn't nighttime, so we weren't exactly experiencing exactly what the patriots were up to on the night of December 16th. It was certainly cold enough, though!
There are two museum ships - the Eleanor and the Beaver. We only got to go on one of them, and I'm not sure if you can see both at any time, but that wasn't the part we were interested in: was my mom going to get to throw the tea in the harbor the way she'd been wanting to since she was a kid?
Well, not right away. This part of the tour definitely felt a little rushed. You can throw tea into the harbor, but you've got to be a little patient. There are four foam tea chests you can throw in the harbor, and they let any kids in the group go first. I don't have an issue with that, but at the same time, I do get a little bummed out when it looks like an activity is solely for children. I like doing stuff like this too, and sometimes I feel awkward asking hey, is it okay for me to have a turn doing the activity that's clearly meant to keep the kids entertained?
On top of that, four kids were allowed to do it, and then we were kind of hurried below decks. I wasn't expecting all 25 of us to get to individually toss the tea into the harbor, but I definitely feel like this part could stand to have been extended a bit. Or maybe let people explore below decks by themselves while other people got to wait their turn to toss the tea?
The ship itself was a pretty standard historic ship from the period. That might sound kind of jaded, but remember, I've been on a lot of historic ships: the Mayflower II, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, the Discovery, the USS Constitution, plus more modern ones like the USS Missouri and the USS Olympia. What was different was this one is a cargo ship that actually held cargo, not people, so we got to learn about just how cramped it would be below decks. Imagine the whole hold of a ship filled with these East India Company tea chests!
We got to do a lap around the hold of the ship, including the captain's quarters which were very nice and had some good examples of period furniture, maps, a tea set and even the man himself sitting in his chair. Don't worry, it wasn't a creepy mannequin.
Fortunately for my mom, they did let us go back up on deck and she did get to throw the tea in the harbor. Unfortunately, as I didn't bring my good camera, my action shots didn't wind up as impressive as I would have liked them to, but I did get several pictures of her tea chest bobbing around before it was hauled back on board for the next angry patriot.
Afterward, we got to head into the museum. You don't get to take pictures inside the museum itself, and there isn't much by way of artifacts, but the major one they do have is pretty cool.
First, you get to watch a virtual exhibit about the immediate aftermath of the tea party from the perspective of a patriot and loyalist woman, both with very differing ideas about the incident. Next, we were led into a room with another virtual exhibit starring King George III and John Hancock, and got to see one of the two known tea chests that actually were thrown into the harbor. A young man from Boston found it washed up on the shore and hid it in his home for years, knowing how important it would be to future generations. It was passed down through his family, occasionally put on display, and then donated to the museum when it was refurbished and expanded.
Finally, there's a short film about how the Tea Party set the stage for Lexington and Concord, and then the tour is complete! It takes about an hour total, and I definitely think it's worth it. I had a really good time even though it was cold and the spaces got a bit crowded, and I definitely wish this had been around when I was a little kid. I remember how excited I was when I was younger to visit the Boston Massacre site and the USS Constitution, and my head might have exploded to have the chance to throw tea into the harbor.
There's a pretty impressively sized gift shop, which unsurprisingly sells a lot of tea related merchandise, including a wide selection of teas, historical and otherwise. And, of course, then there's the tea room.
Abigail's Tea Room is named after - who else - Abigail Adams, which would have been cool enough on its own. But the actual shop is quite nice, offering a wide selection of tasty foods and snacks. They've also got a very reasonably priced tea tasting. I bought the one that came with a souvenir mug, making it a little more expensive, but I got all you can drink tea and definitely had some fun with that.
The three blends they have available are two historical teas and one modern. Young Hyson green tea (a favorite of both Washington and Jefferson!) and Bohea black tea are two of the teas that were thrown into the harbor in 1773, and Abigail's Blend is their own specialty tea, which is supposed to be reminiscent of historic teas with modern flavors. I liked Abigail's Blend the best, followed by Young Hyson and then Bohea, which was just a little too strong for my tastes. My mom and I bought some Young Hyson and Abigail's Blend in the gift shop and have been enjoying it at home. I think you can order from them online too, if you'd like to try them out but aren't going to be in Boston in the near future.
The menu is also a fun blend of modern and quasi historic. While there are options that definitely suit modern people, some of the choices like the hearty beef stew I picked out seem historical enough to get me excited. The prices are reasonable, and I really enjoyed my lunch. My mom liked hers as well, and we were both really pleased with the scones we purchased. They have a lot of sweet pastries and goodies, but also have a few savory scones. My mom got one with cheddar rosemary, and I got a cinnamon scone. I almost wanted to get another one, but my guilt over knowing I was going to have a big dinner got me to resist. Barely.
The tea room is extremely charming, and right up my alley. Each table has a sugar box stamped with the East India Company's symbol, and some have tea pots, lanterns and other period appropriate centerpieces. The furniture and decorations don't look right out of the 1770's, but they evoke it wonderfully and the whole place has a great view of the harbor. A few of the interpreters seem to always be on sight to answer questions, and there were several sets of colonial era games out for people to play with if they wanted to.
Honestly, I'm totally smitten with Abigail's Tea Room. I almost didn't want to leave! It does a good business with people ordering take away food after tours or coming in for a sit down meal. My mom and I lingered for a decently long time enjoying the tea and talking with some of the interpreters, and I can definitely tell you that if this had been around while I was in school, I would have been a frequent visitor.
Aside from doing a good lunch business, the tea room has also started a program where every 2nd and 4th Friday of every month called Huzzah! Tavern Nights, where you can come and enjoy period food, song and discussions with Samuel Adams and John Hancock, among others. I'd love to do this, and would absolutely come back to do it. Maybe one day this spring, we'll have to go back!
I'd definitely recommend the whole experience if you're in Boston or thinking of being. My mom and I had a great time, and it was a lot of fun to have a more interactive experience in Boston. I was always jealous that kids in Virginia got to go to Williamsburg whenever they wanted (or so I assumed), and would have loved something like this just as much years ago as I do now. I'm also really excited about Tavern Nights, and really would love to go back. If and when we do, expect another update post from me and Miss Merriman!
And hopefully we'll be getting more of these scones...